You are all the Devil.
Old Nick. Lucifer. It doesn’t really matter which name you adopt, he’s inside every one of you. I’m sorry if you’re of a somewhat religious persuasion and this news comes as a bit of a shock. Don’t be alarmed. Try to shed the idea of the Devil being a manifestation of all evil. We’re talking here about temptation, about free will. About rebellion.
It’s a mistake to think that Satanic themes are only present in games that feature hellish or demonic imagery. Every game, after all, has a player. That player is you. And you are the Devil. Specifically, the Devil is a manifestation of your agency (capacity to act) as a player.
The game designer is essentially a Judeo-Christian style god. He is all-powerful and can tell the player precisely what can and cannot be done within his universe. Generally, he will know exactly how the plot unfolds and often attempts to steer the player down the “correct” narrative path, one that just happens to correspond with his design vision. Guidance arrows and pop-up control hints are his Ten Commandments. Obey these and you will take your place in heaven. You’ll achieve enlightenment. You’ll finish the game.
Even in cases where we are apparently given free will as players, this freedom is often an illusion. Open-world and sandbox games all have their limitations. Projects like Paradise Lost is something that should resonate with all players. When the imposed rules of a game are too restrictive, we have a burning desire to break them. We want to clamber around where we’re not supposed to go, to circumvent invisible barriers and to use what meager powers we have been given in unforeseen ways. Like Milton’s charismatic version of Satan, we wish to challenge the creator’s authority over us, even if these acts end in failure. Few things frustrate players more than arbitrary rules placed upon us by all-knowing games designers. After all, what use is the freedom to watch mighty powers being unleashed in a multitude of unskippable cut-scenes if the ability to progress in-game is still thwarted by a tiny fence?
Player agency, then, is a manifestation of our desire to rebel against a creator. It’s the serpent in the Garden of Eden, whispering to us that the designer is keeping something from us and that if we only act against his wishes, these new paths will be revealed to us. God may have given Adam and Eve free will in the Book of Genesis, but it was the Devil who encouraged them to truly exercise it. We should all take a bite from that apple – unless prompted to do so by “Press A to eat.” In that instance, we should instead try to escape over the walls of the garden by stacking all of the animals in a big tower.
Interestingly enough, a recent piece by Eskil Steenberg (creator of Love) compares players who blindly follow scripted events to creationists. “If something happens they think it is because of a decision taken by a designer rather than as an effect of the logic of the universe,” Steenberg writes. It’s up to us, as active players, to take back the power to impact game worlds in unusual ways. We have to struggle out of the straightjacket that we would be placed inside by certain designers. Let’s be the Devil we know we can be.
This is a two-way deal. Some designers are on board with providing as much player freedom as possible (and despite my examples above, Mount & Blade is definitely in this category.) It’s the reason why Deus Ex still holds up as a must-play game. The reverence for that title isn’t really down to the plot (unless you’re an avid Coast to Coast fan,) and it certainly isn’t anything to do with the voice acting. It’s the respect given to player agency that is present in almost every section of the game.
Some make the mistake of thinking the genius of Deus Ex rests with the choice of taking three distinct paths: stealth, violence or wits. Were it so simple (and restrictive), the game would not be remembered so fondly. Sure, you can max out one of those routes, but it’s also possible to create a JC Denton with super-speed legs who’s also a heavy weapons and hacking expert. When you’re leaping around, popping off rockets, aided by some hacked bots, it’s not really a “path” you can fit into a neat little box. And that’s the point. The skills and environments allow a persistent player to do ludicrous, bizarre things – like reducing yourself to just a head and rolling on-board Jock’s escape helicopter. Visionary actions like this can only be achieved if you listen to the little voice in your brain.
Seven Deadly Sims
Of course, it’s no coincidence that some of this rebellious devilry tends to take the form of morally questionable acts. The Devil is player agency, and if he is restricted he will encourage our darker sides. Don’t believe me? Then let’s take a quick straw poll: How many of you passed the time during Half-Life 2‘s locked-room exposition scenes by smacking Eli, Alyx or random pieces of scenery/NPCs about the face with a crowbar, shooting mugs around the room or just bouncing up and down on top of a nearby surface like a gibbon? Exactly. You felt trapped, didn’t you? You just fancied finding out whether you could murder some plot-critical characters, or at least get them to react to some strange behavior. It’s OK. I understand.
You see, it’s well known that the Devil is also a trickster. His temptations come with a price. While players are busy trying to rebel against the authoritarian overtones of overly linear titles or making merry in Deus Ex-style worlds, many designers are all too aware that this is what people desire from a game. As such, the situation can be reversed, with the developer offering players exactly the type of experience they know is craved. As players, we are then cast in the role of Christ being tempted by the Devil in the New Testament: “[T]he devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’“
Doesn’t this sound awfully familiar? Most of us have, at some point, fallen afoul of marketing hype for an upcoming MMO or open-world title that appears to offer greater player agency than ever before. Pre-order now they purr, beckoning seductively, you’ll be able to roam anywhere and do anything. Once ensnared by these glamorous promises, it becomes inevitable that players will be disappointed to some degree by the final release. Many are the concepts that litter Peter Molyneux‘s avenue of broken dreams.
Hell Is Other Videogames
The Devil is in all of us. In our desires, and in our actions. But that player agency has influence, meaning Satanic manifestation can reach ever further. It can stretch beyond the Milton-esque need to escape constrictions of design and infect our very actions, infusing them with a dark, amoral hue. Developers who make a deal with the Dark Lord and harness the power of player agency, offering just enough of their game to Lucifer to keep players who demand freedom of action satisfied, will often be rewarded with critical acclaim.
Yet the temptation is to make another, more deceptive deal. To offer the Earth when there are no plans to deliver it. This may taint the game’s reputation, forever damning it, or it may provide a traditional morality sting to the tale: the delivery of a sub-par game in which players must embrace the darkness to break out of the design bonds. Thus, the cycle is perpetuated, forever dooming players to a path along which they seek ever more impossible open-world games, falling for the sweet words of marketers again and again.
The Devil can offer us the world and encourage us to achieve great (and terrible) things in games, but he also represents an overextended reach. This vanity and deception of scale can lead only to disappointment. So embrace his principles of agency, but devote yourself fully to him at your peril.
Just remember, there’s no escaping his clutches.
Peter Parrish has been excommunicated.